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Friday, 12 November 2010

Violence breeds violence - discuss.

My daughter has to write an English essay along the lines of, “Violence breeds violence. How does Emily Bronte portray violence in Wuthering Heights?” I became a sounding board for Emma’s ideas as she trawled through the episodes of violence in this gothic novel. It made me think. What are the attitudes to violence of the people who live in countries where there is the death penalty, or other forms of violent punishment? Are they more prone to believe that violence is an acceptable action? If violence is seen as the right, and justified, course of action by the state, does it follow that the citizens will also feel that violence is right and justified when seeking their own justice?
In asking these questions, I am not seeking to take a political stance, or even to say that violence is right or wrong. It is just that intuitively I would expect to see elevated levels of illegal violence in societies where there is legal violence.
We bring our children up with fairy stories which say that it is right for the hero/ine to kill the witch / ogre / giant / dragon / evil person and steal their gold. To be fair though, the non-human varieties of antagonist are usually threatening to eat the hero/ine, so it is an understandable view to take. 

(Are fairy tale witches non-human by the way?)
I realise that the fairy stories would lose some of their appeal if Gretal had picked up the phone to the police and the witch had been arrested and tried for false imprisonment, or if social services had taken Cinderalla into care whilst she was still sitting amongst the embers to keep warm, but what does it say about our view of natural justice?
This is relevant to those of us who are involved in world building, whether in science fiction, high fantasy, alternative reality or even urban fantasy. How do we portray violence and attitudes to violence? Can our hero/ine kill with impunity just because the antagonist and his / her henchmen (henchpeople?) are bad? Usually we contrive killing to be in self defence, but rarely do we allow our hero/ine to suffer the consequences. How many books can you think of where the evil destroyer is still alive at the end? At the final end, I mean, not the end of Book 1! Is it that we tend to polarise our characters? If the antagonist is unremittingly evil and is hell bent on murder and mayhem, then his/her death is necessary for natural justice, but would we be comfortable killing someone who is a tortured soul who does evil things in his/her spare time, so to speak?
How we treat violence colours the whole of the societies that we build. We owe it to our characters to understand the cascade of violence, from the children’s tales to the state executions (not suggesting one leads on to the other, you understand), so that we can honestly portray their actions and their reactions to the hell we put them through.


  1. Violence does play an important part in society, from the action itself, to the way the people not physically harmed respond to it.

  2. Yes, of course, violence creates a pool of victims that slowly spreads.

  3. Good question. This may well be a chicken and egg question since violence has been part of society forever. If you think about the Roman Gladiators, the Saxons and the Normans, Jews and Nazis, modern terrorism, to name just a few through history, it seems to be a base animal instinct that we cannot shed however much we try to civilize ourselves, so we attempt to teach our children that evil is bad through stories in an attmept to counteract society's more unplesant animal urges. :O)

  4. Such an in-depth question Dom. It is appalling that in the everyday world there is violence. But it is a fact of life. In my high fantasy, my heroine is thrust into a medieval world where her music will heal the people who have been damaged by evil, but it is also the power by which 'The Treasures of Carmelidrium' are in-powered. These treasures have the power to kill and to protect. My character is torn by all of this because of compassion, even toward the villain.
    Thanks for your comment on Mary's book. She has stopped in to answer it.
    Mary Montague Sikes' blog book tour at my blog today...come on by. Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  5. Dominic! Wow, what an impassioned point you've made. I've always thought about that. Yes, it is a way of life.

    There was a man whose blog I visited. He stalwartly believes that violence is necessary and feels that I will get nowhere (according to the comment I left there) if I don't write about it.

    I had mentioned that I've lived a life of violence and since there's so much of it in real life, why write about it? There's no need. Really. Why not provided an escape? A haven for those suffering now?

    Great post.

    Oh, btw, thanks for following me!!! :)

    Have a great weekend.

  6. From the beginning of time (if you believe the bible - Cain and Abel) there has been murder. This was before books or cartoons or movies. I'm not sure literature or the arts is solely to blame. That's my two cents. I really enjoyed this article.

  7. I've wondered about these points a few times, I agree its like a cause and effect type of thing, but where one begins and one ends we can really tell.
    I do not think it started just in children's literature, I think its always been around, perhaps as a primal instinct, violence is an advance of what we want, either by personal gain or community gain, or even country gain.
    I can't say either way which side I'm on for it, because I don't really know honestly. But I do think it will be around for a long time to come.

  8. Thank you for dropping by and leaving your comments everyone. No, I didn't mean to imply that children's stories are to blame, merely that they reflect the society in which they are written / spoken and so perpetuate the cycle. Yes of course there has been violence from the dawn of time, but if I, personally, in real life, can abhor violence and consider that it is not an answer, how many people in my society feel the same? Under what circumstances would I become violent? Is it possible to gradually eliminate violence over a long period of time if society as a whole denounced it? These are the sorts of questions that I wrestle with when considering what sort of society the future could potentially hold, and what sort of society a fantasy world might produce. I do think that British society has become progressively less violent over time, so perhaps there is hope for our species yet!

  9. As a mother of 4, I do worry about the desensitizing nature of current media and video games when it comes to violence and the value of human life. I've heard stories of kids in my son's school who seem to take pleasure talking about a torture scene in a video game. Many kids easily throw around language that popularizes violence in a way that disturbs me. As parents, we try to emphasize the sanctity of life and respect for individual expression. Personally, I don't gravitate towards books or movies that have heavy violent portrayals. I don't think they are necessary to make a good story. Unfortunately, it seems like those overly violent themes attract a wide audience. Kids are not easily shocked or horrified anymore. That scares me. This saturation of the media with violence is affecting the younger generations in ways that may not be easily remedied.

  10. septembermom beat me to pun intended.

    I don't worry, as such, so much about violence itself but at the next generation's attitude towards it. They don't seem to have a grasp on the concept that if you shoot someone "in real life", especially in anger, they don't get up again for Round 2. They don't see consequences for their decisions.

    When I was a kid, the death penalty was given to the worst of the worst, so they couldn't harm again. Good theory, didn't work in principle as "evil" just regroups to try again. Then I thought perhaps the "best" form of punishment was to keep all the evil locked up in one place for life...leaving them to put up with each other.

    What concerns me now is the generation of kids I work with in the afternoons; their immediate response to anything they don't like, understand or are afraid of is: kill it! I once "rescued" a ladybug from them just to have the opportunity to explain how helpful it is, a concept they had a hard time accepting.

    I don't know what the answer is other than keep the dialog going. Interesting topic!

  11. Thank you Kelly and Hope.
    Time will no doubt tell. I grew up in the late sixties / early seventies and there were a lot of war films shown at that time. War was to me an unquestioned fact of life (excuse the irony) or at least recent history. Killing the enemy simply because they were the enemy was the "right" thing to do - the enemy being people of that nationality. I did not question the Dresden bombings for instance.

    I did not take that attitude out to re-examine it until, can you believe it, the Iraq war. Suddenly civilian casualties - or should I say collateral damage - and the suffering of non-combatants became of concern, and I wondered if the equivalent of the thousand bomber raid of Dresden today would be regarded today as murder.

    So I would consider myself to be a well adjusted, non-violent person who grew up in a society which considered the most horrific violence as justified.

    So what are my conclusions? That the society in which a person finds themselves will have the greatest effect on a person, rather than their past experience. I live and move in totally and utterly non-violent circles - what would I be like and what would I become if instead I was living in Germany in 1938?

  12. Interesting topic, Dom. I'd be suspect of anyone who had a definitive answer. I certainly don't. You raise a point I'm exploring with my NaNo novel, actually. My protagonist is a former Navy SEAL turned Christian youth minister, and his easy return to his military skills to resolve a violent situation appalls him, but at the same time he knows no other avenue was open to him at the time. Was he right or wrong? It is a moral issue for my character, and honestly, there is no definitive answer. The question becomes: Is violence always wrong? Is it ever right? If your child's life was threatened, and only a violent aggressive act could save his/her life, would you hold your passive moral ground? I wouldn't. I know I wouldn't. Save my child, I would beg.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that we are sometimes put in extraordinary circumstances. Violence should never be the first option. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the only one available; and that creates a moral dilemma for all of us.


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